Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In Brazil, a city traumatized by rainfall

By Tina Kühne
Copy edited and produced by Taylor Pool

It had been raining for days in January, 2011 in the municipality of Nova Friburgo, Brazil.

“It started raining between Christmas and New Year’s and it rained virtually every day and night,” said Virginia Vanstaveren, an American who has been living in the region for nine years.

Heavy rainfall turned into floods and caused severe mudslides in different areas of the Serra do Mar mountains. Nova Friburgo is situated in the midst of these mountains, about 80 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro. More than half of the town lies 3000 feet or more above sea level. Mountains, rivers, waterfalls and lakes characterize the landscape.

Photo provided by GingerV at Flowers and More

Vanstaveren and her husband Camillo were lucky; their home was safe from the mudslides. When Camillo built the house, he had included a retaining wall to secure the house from being washed away. These structures are not common in Brazil.

Their maid Lucia and her daughter lost their houses. Lucia’s daughter was seriously injured.

The floods and mudslides in Southeastern Brazil caused almost 900 deaths. Thousands of people lost their homes. According to the United Nations secretariat of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Brazil is third on the list of countries with the deadliest catastrophes in 2011, after Japan and the Philippines.

Brazil experiences heavy rain falls regularly in the months from December to March. The natural process of weathering, which is the breaking down of soils and rocks by water, temperatures, flora and fauna, increases the risk of mudslides. This is exhilarated in the hot and humid tropical climate in Brazil, said Luci Hidalgo Nunes, a climatologist at the University of Campinas in the state of São Paulo.

“I would like to say that concentrated rain falls alone trigger these disasters, but the real cause is the way in which society is established in the area.”

Civilization changes the ways of the waters and alters the environment. This increases the risk of mudslides and makes living there dangerous.
Photo provided by GingerV at Flowers and More

Nunes said the solution would be to not inhabit the areas at risk.

“More or less the same happens in places like Los Angeles or Tokyo, which are in earthquake areas. People prefer to believe that nothing will happen to them.”

Many poor people built their houses in dangerous areas, like on hillsides, often without permission from the government.

“There is legislation, but the problem is to put it in force. Some municipalities install facilities like telephone connections or access to cable TV in these areas.” said Nunes.

A year later, a city still struggling
One year after the disaster, people are still in shock, said Marie-Anne Pinheiro, a Swiss teacher and social anthropologist living in Nova Friburgo. Her husband Maurício is the director of Casa Suiça, a museum for the Swiss heritage of Nova Friburgo. The town was founded by Swiss immigrants.

“People are traumatized,” Marie-Anne Pinheiro said. “When it rains, they are so terrified they stay at home and don’t go out anymore.”

She has friends who try to fight the sadness and hopelessness with antidepressants. She went to Switzerland during the anniversary of the mudslides, because of the bad atmosphere in the town and not to take the risk of January rainfalls again.

Pinheiro said that after the disaster, many moved out of the city, especially the educated. In the future, this could lead to a shortage of professionals, like doctors. But people who are not as financially independent, like the maid Lucia, don’t have the choice.

“The land has been in their families for one hundred years. They can’t afford to go anywhere else, they can’t sell their property. Where would they go?” said Vanstaveren.

Nunes and Vanstaveren emphasize that the floods and mudslides in 2011 did not only affect the houses of the poor, but also rich people.

Brazil explores solutions
The Brazilian government has made efforts to reduce the risks for the population and to prevent disasters.

“I think the situation is improving, but it is not as I would like it to be,” said Nunes.

Solving the problems on a governmental level is complicated. Brazil is the fifth biggest country in the world. It is divided into 26 states and one federal district. Similar to the states in the USA, they have their own economies, politics and laws.

“Of course there are more things that could be done, but the government has done all the things it could in the year since the catastrophe,” said Mariza Mendes, Head of the Press Office of the Brazilian Red Cross.

An alert system has been established in Nova Friburgo. Vanstaveren recalled seeing bright orange trucks with speakers on top during heavy rain in the beginning of January this year.

“They were standing in front of City Hall, not moving. I don’t see that the measures have been effective.”

“The alert system is clearly not working because we didn’t get enough information about what we should do when the alerts go off,” said Rodrigo Aleixo, who has been living in the city for three years.

He said that people are outraged and frustrated by how little has been done since the disaster. Pinheiro said that some bridges have only been painted over without being repaired. Sewer systems have not been cleaned.

“During a thunderstorm in October the lower city center was under water,” she explained.

The government is funding the building of new houses. “Like before, these buildings don’t have retaining walls“, observed Vanstaveren.

In addition to that, there has been corruption in the distribution of subsidies.

“Most of all we feel alone and abandoned,” said Aleixo. Although he has little faith that the situation will improve soon, he cannot imagine leaving Nova Friburgo.

He said, “It’s very sad to stay here but I got attached to the city. I like the people and the way of living. I don’t want to go.”

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